Lopez first-pitch HR sets tone as Red Sox fall in Mazzilli debut

Manager makes all right calls as new Orioles era blossoms before a national audience

Orioles blast off, 7-2

April 05, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The walkway from the Orioles' clubhouse to their dugout was repainted this offseason, and before each player took the field for Opening Night against the Boston Red Sox, he walked beneath a large sign that says, "Need To Find A Way!"

First-year Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli didn't want to claim authorship last night, but in the spirit of Notre Dame's "Play Like A Champion Today," this was clearly a message he wanted in his team's head.

"Good teams always find a way to win," Mazzilli explained. "It's just a reminder. We talked about it from Day One of spring training. Whatever happens, we've got to find a way to get it done."

Sometimes the toughest challenges in a baseball game are the manager's, and in his major league managing debut, Mazzilli faced as big a test as anyone, as the Orioles defeated the Red Sox, 7-2, before 47,683 at Camden Yards.

The box score will make this one look simple, as if Mazzilli just set the lineup and let this team's new stars do their thing.

New catcher Javy Lopez hit a home run off the first pitch he saw as an Oriole and later added a two-run double. New shortstop Miguel Tejada had a pair of soft singles. And Rafael Palmeiro went 2-for-3 with an important run-scoring single in the seventh.

"The guys went out there and did their jobs," said Mazzilli, who received a visit in his office after the game from Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

But the Red Sox managed to turn up the heat beneath Mazzilli on a night when the temperature was 43 degrees at first pitch, with a 20-mph wind blowing in from center field.

It could have been much easier. The Orioles put Pedro Martinez on the ropes with a three-run second inning, but they whiffed on the early knockout punch. That forced Mazzilli to make a tough call with his own starter, Sidney Ponson, in the sixth inning.

With two outs and a 3-1 lead, Ponson walked the No. 8 and No. 9 hitters in Boston's lineup, bringing his pitch count to 111.

Mazzilli didn't hesitate.

His day began with a phone call from his old mentor, New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, who told Mazzilli to be himself and trust his convictions.

It was quite a way to make a major league managerial debut - on national television, where all his old cronies, and an Orioles fan base could sit back and wait to second-guess.

No team knows managerial second-guessing better than the Red Sox, who saw Grady Little get fired last season after his fateful decision to leave Martinez in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

Mazzilli had Rodrigo Lopez warming in the bullpen, and with the top of the order coming, he made his first career pitching change.

In stepped Lopez, last year's Opening Day starter, who was demoted from the starting rotation last week when Mazzilli decided to go with four starters behind Ponson who have never pitched a full season in the big leagues.

"I just felt Lopey was the guy to go to at that time," Mazzilli said.

Find a way? The call went completely against baseball's conventional wisdom - the right-handed Lopez getting summoned to face the left-handed-hitting Damon.

Find a way? Lopez went 4-0 against the Red Sox during his charmed rookie season of 2002. Last year, when everything else was going bad for Lopez, he went 1-2 against Boston with a 7.92 ERA.

"Just before the game," Lopez said, "I was thinking, `Why did it happen? Why did they put me in the bullpen.'"

Damon represented the go-ahead run, but he ended the inning with a harmless grounder to shortstop. Lopez stayed in the game for one more inning, pitching a scoreless seventh, and the Orioles added three critical insurance runs in the bottom of the inning.

"I felt this definitely would help [Lopez's confidence]," Mazzilli said. "He's an integral part of this bullpen. And when he came out, I think he was pretty pumped up as well."

With two outs in the seventh, Palmeiro delivered a run-scoring single up the middle, eluding Boston's infield shift. Then Javy Lopez hit a two-run double to center field, stretching the lead to 6-1.

Those runs proved critical, as Orioles reliever Mike DeJean loaded the bases with one out in the eighth. But Mazzilli went back to his bullpen, grabbing lefty B.J. Ryan, who limited the damage to one run and finished the ninth to earn the save.

For Ponson, who returned to the team with a three-year, $22.5 million contract this offseason, this performance wasn't exactly ace-like. He got the victory, but in 5 2/3 innings, he allowed seven hits and three walks.

"It was a battle," Ponson said. "I'm not happy with the way I threw, but I'm happy with the outcome."

Martinez, meanwhile, settled down to allow three runs (two earned) on seven hits over six innings in the loss. His first pitch of the second inning was a belt-high, 89-mph fastball, and Javy Lopez drilled it down the left-field line, 370 feet inside the foul pole, for a home run.

Then the Orioles started pulling off some surprises, playing a brand of baseball not seen around Camden Yards in some time.

Call it "Mazzilli Ball."

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